Prometheus: The Symbolic Narrative Unveiled

SPOILERS: Prometheus is a 2012 science-fiction / horror cross-genre film by Ridley Scott. It is set in the same narrative world as both Alien and Blade Runner. By extension, it relies on tropes established by PK Dick and the apparent interconnectedness of Dick’s extended universe. These tropes have proven themselves readily dissectible via Jungian critical theory.

What follows is an analysis of Prometheus, a dissection of certain scenes, and the establishment of a contra-popular hypothesis to close loopholes left by contemporary critics. If you haven’t seen the film, you may wish to stop reading now.

Many assert that the cryptic opening scene of Prometheus depicts an act of self-sacrifice on the part of an alien (termed an Engineer in the movie) in order to make the human race. This assertion seems logical except it overlooks two very important visual clues to what is actually happening.

First, note that the Engineer acknowledges a ship hovering in the clouds overhead. He wears an almost contemptuous smile as he prepares the black brew that will kill him. Once the stuff is down, the ship moves off, no longer interested in what becomes of the Engineer on the shore of the waterfall.

This tells us that this isn’t some noble act of self-sacrifice, but is something else altogether–an execution. The overt parallel is Socrates with the hemlock, and that explains the next part which many contemporary theorists get wrong.

As the beautiful form breaks down into corruption, the Engineer topples into the water. We see his DNA fragmenting, breaking down, turning grey-green and dead. Then–cells, red like blood, and the implication is that somehow this Engineer impacted the evolutionary course of life on earth. This much is obvious, but where so many go wrong is they assume that the Engineer’s DNA somehow incorporated itself into or became responsible for life here. Surely this opinion is corroborated by the DNA test performed on the head, but that doesn’t seem possible.

The Engineer’s DNA breaks down. It snaps, it dies. His genes fragment into grossly deformed strands. And there’s no clear indication that these genes were incorporated in significant numbers into life on earth. So it’s not the Engineer’s DNA that brings about our similarities to our makers. It’s something else.

Consider now the hologram David discovers of the Engineers running through their ship. They enter the chamber with the urns of black reagent but one of them dies, conveniently decapitated by the closing door. What was he running from?

And why does only one Engineer seem to survive the event that kills his comrades?

And if Engineers hate us, why do they visit earth in the first place?

Because a Holy War rages in heaven, complete with angels and demons, rebels and an establishment, and the span of millions of years for tides to turn, ideas to change, and thoughts to evolve. When you think of the backstory in Prometheus, you have to think not only of what life on earth has been up to since that fateful day alongside the pristine waterfall, but also about what Engineer society has been wrestling with since then.

Remember Socrates and his hemlock? Why was he sentenced to die? And how did we evolve to become like the Engineers if the Engineer DNA didn’t do it?

The answer feels unsatisfying at first, but it’s the only answer that makes sense: The imprint of the Engineer on the world was metaphysical, not biological, and gives evidence to a transcendent World of Forms beyond the material which accounts for our otherwise inexplicable evolution. To-wit, this is a film about magic.

Our Socrates must assert that his consciousness transcends material reality. He is offered a chance to prove his hypothesis, but only at the cost of his own life. This implies that the prevailing Engineer society operates on a monist, materialist paradigm, and our hapless alien deity suffers dangerous delusions of dualism–which happen to be correct. The vindication of his theory would be us.

Truth prevails in science, even on alien worlds. The Engineer society changes to embrace the truth and the horror of the injustice inflicted on Socrates. But there remain elements of the Old Guard who wish to suppress the evidence and restore the original scheme. The Engineers who embrace Socrates come to our world and warn us of this division, they point to the munitions dump where the events took place and tell us to be vigilant because they have no idea what has happened there and they aren’t about to go looking (knowing what’s in the urns and what it does to living beings.)

So the one Engineer who survives is a traitor. He has offed his comrades and entered suspended animation in an effort to save himself from whatever he unleashed on the ship. In the command module, in his cocoon, he’s safe. He wants to destroy humanity because he adheres to the old model and everything it represents–perhaps seeing its erosion as the end of the Golden Age of Engineer society. Hence his animosity toward the human party and his complete desire to kill them all.

Now, the black goo–the Bitter Draught–the hemlock–produces life in its own right, and some have observed that we may be descended from the goo rather than the fragments of Engineer DNA. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the World of Forms hypothesis, as the goo tends to produce lesser organisms which then pursue their own evolutionary paths. We also know that the goo effects different subjects in different ways, and that what it produces, while always malevolent, need not destroy its host to manifest. Accepting these observations, we can conclude that the chances of our evolving to perfectly mimic the Engineers remains remote, and that some outside agency has influenced humanity’s ultimate development.

How can I be certain that the Engineer society came to embrace Socrates’ argument? Notice that the ship contains urns of black goo in a room termed the “Temple” by some. In the Temple features an image of a giant face along one wall, and this face belongs to Socrates. The goo is a weapon, the idol of the murdered philosopher reminds the Engineers that those who use the goo should do so with pure intent because the goal really does make a difference. A military priesthood has emerged among the Engineers, it would seem.

When the goo makes Socrates dissolve, the image is one from alchemy. The image of the body of a king (sometimes a queen, often a king and queen together) stoppered in a bottle containing alkahest–the universal solvent–repeats itself through woodcuts from the middle ages. It is believed that such diagrams describe the making of the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Medicine of the Metals.

Medieval alchemists sought to create, transform, and extend life using mystical and chemical processes they represented in elaborate woodcuts and paintings.

In his Book of the Law, the English poet and black magician Aleister Crowley allegedly channeled an entity which spoke (in one passage–chapter 2, verse 21) of the dissolution of the body of the king resulting in eternal ecstasy. Many have come to take this as a sexual reference, perhaps associated with a form of western Tantra, but the truth is that the image (no matter the Freudian impulse of Crowley’s day) stems from an older worldview that saw spirits and incorporeal substances in everything. The body of the Engineer dissolves but his spirit–the rightness of his argument–remains in ecstasy, or philosophic validity, forever.



Shriek into the Void...

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